Views from connections ahead of the Sky Bet Moscow Flyer and the pick of the under card at Punchestown on Sunday.
Buildmeupbuttercup and Harrie bid to follow in some illustrious hoofprints in the Sky Bet Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle at Punchestown on Sunday.
Willie Mullins has dominated this Grade Two contest in the last decade, winning seven of the last 10 renewals.
What is even more notable is that three of those winners – Mikael D’Haguenet (2009), Vautour (2014) and Douvan (2015) – went on to win at the Cheltenham Festival on their very next start, while 2016 victor Min found only Altior too strong in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Prestbury Park.
Even last year’s winner Getabird was sent off a red-hot favourite for the Festival curtain-raiser, so it will be fascinating to see how this year’s Mullins pair perform when stepped up to Grade Two level.
Mullins said: “Harrie is coming back in distance having won at Tramore over two miles and five furlongs and this is a different grade of race, but I think he will be more suited by this sort of trip.
“This will be his first run on good ground so we are not sure about how he’ll handle it, but we’ve been happy with him since Tramore.
“Buildmeupbuttercup ran very well in Navan on her debut over hurdles. She should have no problem with the trip or the ground.”
Ruby Walsh has seemingly sided with Harrie, leaving Paul Townend to take the ride on Buildmeupbuttercup, who was a dual bumper winner in Britain for Mick Channon before joining the Irish champion trainer.
Mullins added: “Both Buildmeupbuttercup and Harrie do lack experience over hurdles, but that has been a narrative of the whole season with horses having to just run when they can, and it is probably the same for a lot of horses.”
Gordon Elliott did not declare ante-post favourite Commander Of Fleet, but still has two chances, with Felix Desjy (Davy Russell) and Swordsman (Jack Kennedy) both in contention.
Felix Desjy was a high-class bumper performer last season and bolted up on his hurdling debut at Galway in October, but has been beaten on his three most recent outings.
Elliott said: “Things haven’t worked out for him since he won his maiden hurdle at Galway, but I thought his last run in Limerick was more encouraging and there is more to come from him over hurdles.”
Henry de Bromhead’s Jan Maat is a third runner for Gigginstown House Stud, while Jessica Harrington’s Jetez completes a six-strong field.
The latter was last seen winning at handicap at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival.
“We were very pleased with him getting back to winning ways at Leopardstown last time,” said Harrington.
“Jetez might not be a Grade One horse yet, but he is going in that direction.”
Rest of the card
Winter Escape bids for a third successive victory over fences in the Total Event Rental Novice Chase at Punchestown on Sunday.
Formerly trained in Britain by Alan King, the JP McManus-owned eight-year-old joined Aidan Howard last year and the change of scenery appears to have had the desired effect.
After finishing second on his chasing debut and his first start for his new trainer at the Galway Festival last summer, Winter Escape went one better at the same track in September and followed up with an impressive success at Cork in early November.
He carries a penalty as he goes in search of back-to-back Grade Three wins this weekend.
Howard said: “He’s in good form and we’re hoping for a good run.
“We didn’t go to the Drinmore in Fairyhouse because the ground wasn’t suitable and we also missed a race at Naas, but I think we have to go on Sunday really if we’re going to go for the race in Leopardstown (Flogas Novice Chase) next month.
“A bit of rain would definitely help, but we’re happy with him and we’ll see how he goes.”
Winter Escape heads a nine-strong field for the two-and-a-half-mile contest.
Gordon Elliott has a strong hand with Ben Dundee, Blow By Blow, Gun Digger, Poli Roi and Cubomania all in the final field, although the latter was also declared for Saturday’s Dan Moore Memorial Chase at Fairyhouse.
Henry de Bromhead is looking forward to saddling A Plus Tard after he opened his account over fences in impressive style at Naas last month.
De Bromhead said: “He’s in good shape, everything has gone well since Naas and this race has been his aim since the.
“He is only five so hopefully there is more to come from him and we’re looking forward to seeing how he gets on at this level.
“His run here should tell us what direction we should be taking with him over the next couple of months.”
The Mouse Morris-trained Beyond The Law and Jessica Harrington’s Jetz complete the line-up.
It could be another big day for McManus, with French recruit Elixir D’Ainay making his Irish debut in the Sportinglife.com Maiden Hurdle.
The five-year-old won a bumper in his homeland last November and the fact trainer Willie Mullins has given him an entry in the Grade One Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle – formerly the Deloitte – at Leopardstown next month suggests he has shown plenty on the gallops at Closutton.
Noel Meade’s Down Royal bumper winner Active Force is the obvious danger.
A field of 11 runners have been declared for the Punchestown Amateur National Handicap Chase.
Likely contenders include De Bromhead’s Aherlow, the mount of Mark O’Hare, and Undressed, trained by Mullins and ridden by his son, Patrick.
However, the latter has something to prove after pulling up when an odds-on favourite at Limerick over the festive period.
Stucker Hill bids to complete a hat-trick for trainer Billy Lanigan in the concluding Leinster Leader Mares Handicap Hurdle.